Marvel Villains: Understanding the Enemy

“In the moment when I truly understand my enemy, understand him well enough to defeat him, then in that very moment I also love him. I think it’s impossible to really understand somebody, what they want, what they believe, and not love them the way they love themselves.”

Ender’s Game

The Marvel Cinematic Universe now boasts over twenty films (and multiple TV shows). Stories woven together into one near-seamless, overarching narrative. With so many films, there’s bound to be a few not-so-great ones… and a few not-so-great villains as well. While there have been some truly standout Marvel baddies—from The Avengers’ Loki to Black Panther’s Killmonger—there have also been some rather disappointing and forgettable antagonists. Who remembers the name of the villain in the first Iron Man film? What about that weird elf guy in Thor: The Dark World? And why on earth did Marvel execs waste Lee Pace’s epic villain potential in Guardians of the Galaxy?

But perhaps the most important question is: what makes the difference? Why are some Marvel villains instantly iconic, memorable, and intimidating while others fall flat? Let’s find out!

Often, one of the main goals of any movie director is to make us sympathize with and root for the film’s main character, the hero (or heroine). Why would we want to sit through a two-hour movie if we don’t like or care about the characters? MCU films are great at making us fall in love with the characters who populate each movie: Captain America, Iron Man, Ant-Man, Doctor Strange, Black Panther… the list goes on! We care about the films (and the universe) because we care about the heroes.

But, for each story to reach its fullest potential, we also need to care about the villain.

Now, this doesn’t mean we have to love and cheer on Zemo or Ego or Thanos. (I don’t think we should at all! They’re evil!) There are several MCU villains I truly loathe, but that doesn’t mean I still don’t appreciate what great antagonists/characters they are. I ‘care about them’ in the sense that I can clearly see who they are as a person—their backstory, their goals, their personality. (A sick aesthetic and cool powers certainly don’t hurt either.) And whether all that repels or engages me, I care. I have opinions and emotions about villains like Killmonger, Director Pierce, and Ward (Agents of SHIELD), which is infinitely better than a sense of ‘meh’ (looking at you, random villain in Ant-Man!).

The best MCU villains have understandable, even sympathetic motivations. Hela seeks revenge because of what Odin did to her. Thanos works to bring peace and prosperity to the universe. Killmonger longs to help his people escape and overthrow tyranny. While we don’t want these villains to defeat our heroes, we enjoy watching them on-screen. And we may even cry when they finally get defeated. (I will never not Feel Feelings as Killmonger watches his last sunset.)

However, appreciating such likable villains can be a double-edged sword. When does understanding and sympathizing with a villain turn into condoning their actions? It’s a fine line! And it’s scary as well. When we understand and relate to a villain (even ever so slightly), we can see just what we might be capable of. That’s why we should always turn our focus back to the marvelous (haha) superheroes the MCU has given us. While they may not always be the perfect hero, soldier, Avenger… they are good men (and women). And we should strive to relate to them the most.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Eva-Joy Schonhaar is an aspiring author who has written several novels and hopes to be published some day soon. She’s a Christian fangirl who drinks insane amounts of coffee, thinks that chocolate chip cookies solve pretty much everything, and always uses the Oxford Comma. In her spare time she can be found geeking out over superheroes and reading The Hunger Games for the millionth time.

5 thoughts on “Marvel Villains: Understanding the Enemy

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  1. Wait, you didn’t think Obadiah was memorable in Iron Man? Oh my goodness, I find him so scary! And believable. Greedy, selfish, manipulative, power-hungry executives are all too real, and I find him one of the scariest and realest villains in all of the MCU. Gah, I can’t stand him.

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  2. The biggest problem with Malekith (the main villain in Thor: The Dark World), is that he’s so much more interesting in the comics. He’s somewhat like The Joker, in that he wants to see the realms burn, and he’s pretty much in love with how evil he is. Of course he’s also got formidable magical abilities and a huge army behind him. That would have been so much more fun than the boring nihilist extremist that we got.

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